Black American Trailblazers in Conservation
February is Black History Month. Throughout this month, people around the nation have celebrated the accomplishments of African Americans in their fields, as well as individuals who have changed our country and the world for the better. At Zoo Atlanta, we recognize the great achievements of those who were trailblazers in wildlife conservation. These are brief stories of three of the countless pioneers who deserve our gratitude and to be honored and remembered.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be archaeologists
Some animals are more than their parts. Some animals represent something more. In America, we have an animal that is more than its horns, legs, snout, eyes, very large body, short tail, and neck muscle that helps them hang their massive heads close to the ground. This is what a bison is made of. What a bison is, though, is completely different. The bison is an animal that uniquely defines the American story and the American West. This is the story of George McJunkin, the coolest cowboy you’ve never heard of.
George McJunkin was enslaved from his birth in Texas in the 1850s until the end of the Civil War. Already an accomplished horseman, he moved to New Mexico and became a cowboy. He became the foreman on the Crowfoot Ranch near Folsom, New Mexico. McJunkin learned to read and write. He could speak Spanish and could play fiddle and guitar. In 1908, he would make a discovery that would make him even more of a legend, and would change the way we viewed human life on the North American continent.
In 1908, there was a huge storm and flood. After the flood, George saddled up and was riding the ranch checking fences and arroyos, dry creek beds that fill up with water during heavy rains, for damages and drowned livestock. What he found instead would be one of the most important discoveries in American natural history and archaeology. He found bones. He could recognize the skeletal structure of these bones as bison, but the horns were different, and these bones were bigger than any bison he had ever seen.
George knew this discovery could be incredibly important, and he spent the rest of his life trying to convince people that what he had found was significant.
No one listened to George.
George McJunkin died of old age after a well-lived life in 1922. He never solved the mystery of the giant bones he found. A few months after his death, some archaeologists that McJunkin had informed of his discovery at Wild Horse Arroyo went to the site themselves. They discovered more bones, and what was more fascinating was the presence of spear tips in some of the bones.
In the 1920s, the common thought among paleontologists and archaeologists was that humans had been living in North America for about 4,000 years. This discovery proved that people were living in the area now known as the southwestern United States at least 10,000 years ago.
This would not have happened if it wasn’t for George McJunkin. It is sad that he wasn’t alive to be proven right about his discovery, and it took more than 50 years after his death for him to be given any credit, but finally he was given the credit he was due.
Is there a doctor in the house?
Before the turn of the last century in Virginia, a baby was born. This isn’t uncommon. Babies are born every day. This baby would grow up to be a pioneer and a trailblazer. She would grow up to be Dr. Roger Arliner Young, he first Black woman to earn a PhD in Zoology. This is her story.
Dr. Young grew up in Pennsylvania. In 1916, she enrolled in Howard University. She graduated with her Bachelor’s degree. Ernest Just, a mentor and professor at Howard, encouraged and even funded Roger’s graduate school. In 1924, she started graduate school at the University of Chicago. Her first research publication was in September of 1924, and she graduated with her Master’s in 1926.
After she graduated, her mentor, Just, invited her to work with him doing marine biology lab work in Massachusetts. He would later go to Europe to work on a grant project and would have Young stand in for him as head of the Zoology Department at Howard University while he was away.
In 1930, she attempted to begin classes for a PhD, but she failed the qualifying exams. She was devastated. She went back to teaching at Howard.
In 1937, she began classes at the University of Pennsylvania and earned her PhD in 1940.
After she graduated, she moved to North Carolina and taught at a college in Raleigh. She would go on to work at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, and at Southern University in New Orleans.
She passed away in November of 1964 in New Orleans.
A legacy as tall as a tree
In 1864, a young man fled Kentucky for Ohio for safety and freedom. The young man joined the Union Army, fighting in the Civil War that was dividing our young nation. He soon made sure his wife and young son made their way to Ohio, too. This infant would grow up to be Colonel Charles Young.
Young’s mother could read and write and provided him with an education at home to enhance the education he was getting at the integrated public school he attended, and where he would eventually graduate with honors. After high school, Charles taught at an African American elementary school, but he would soon return to school himself, attending one of the most prestigious schools in the nation.
In 1883, Young’s father encouraged him to take the West Point entrance exam. Charles did well on the exam but was not selected for admission; however, another candidate dropped out, and Charles was given the opportunity to attend the military academy. He was only the ninth African American to attend West Point and the third to graduate. Young graduated in 1889.
In the early days of the National Parks, the Army was used to maintain and oversee parks. In 1903, now a Captain in the Army, Charles Young became the first African American National Park Superintendent. Charles Young’s time as Superintendent made him an advocate for nature, wildlife, and conservation.
Here he is quoted about conservation: “Indeed, a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes. In this, lies the necessity of forest preservation.” – Colonel Charles Young
Colonel Young had such a profound impact on the Sequoia National Park that 20 years after his time as Superintendent, a giant Sequoia tree was named in his honor.
After serving as a National Park Superintendent, Young had a fruitful military career. President Roosevelt made Young the Military Attaché to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He was the only African American to serve in a diplomatic post for Roosevelt. Young was even recruited and trained troops in Ohio to prepare for World War I.
In 1922, while on a trip to Nigeria, Young died at the age of 58. After his death, Young’s wife lobbied for his remains to be brought back to the U.S. One year later, Young’s body was returned. In May 1923, thousands welcomed his body home, and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside many of our nation’s heroes.
Archaeologysouthwest.com (2020, October 20). George McJunkin and the discovery that changed American archaeology. Archaeology Southwest. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.archaeologysouthwest.org/2015/02/23/george-mcjunkin-and-the-discovery-that-changed-american-archaeology/
Dictionary.com. (n.d.). Arroyo definition & meaning. Dictionary.com. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/arroyo
Archaeologysouthwest.com (2021, March 5). George McJunkin: Standing at the intersection of black history and American archaeology. Archaeology Southwest. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.archaeologysouthwest.org/2021/03/04/george-mcjunkin-standing-at-the-intersection-of-black-history-and-american-archaeology/
U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Brigadier general Charles Young. National Parks Service. Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.nps.gov/chyo/learn/historyculture/charles-young.htm
U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). General Charles Young, early park superintendent. National Parks Service. Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.nps.gov/seki/learn/historyculture/young.htm
Roger Arliner Young: Lifelong struggle of a zoologist. (n.d.). Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/young.html.
Public Programs Coordinator